Academic Freedom in the Era of Trump

By Sunaina Maira, author of Boycott! The Academy and Justice for Palestine

This guest post is part of the ASA blog series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Studies Association in Chicago, IL Nov. 9-12—and as part of blog series of contributions by authors in the new series American Studies Now.


Something unthinkable happened in the United States in the last few years: hundreds of academics, senior scholars, graduate students, and untenured faculty came forth in support of an academic boycott of Israel. Beginning in 2013, the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions expanded rapidly with one major academic association after another endorsing the boycott and adopting resolutions in solidarity with the Palestinian call for an academic boycott.

But this movement emerged several years after Palestinian academics, intellectuals, and activists called for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel in 2004—and after years of military occupation, failed peace negotiations, ever-expanding and illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, ongoing home demolitions, the building of the Israeli Wall, repression, and military assaults. All of these events and the military occupation of Palestine itself have been endorsed, defended, and funded by Israel’s major global ally, the United States. The academic boycott and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement are thus embedded in a significant aspect of the U.S. political and historical relationship to the Middle East, and in a particular, cultural imaginary of Palestine, Palestinians, and Arabs in general, that has become an increasingly central concern of American studies.

I consider this progressive-left academic solidarity to be a potential expression of academic abolitionism. The notion of academic abolitionism is not focused on redeeming the U.S. academy—just as it is ultimately not focused on redemption for the U.S. imperial state—as much as it is ongoing beyond the liberal discourse of academic freedom to highlight other kinds of freedoms, and un-freedoms. The boycott of Israeli academic institutions that are complicit with occupation and apartheid is only one component of a larger politics of refusal grounded in academic abolitionism. An abolitionist view challenges the complicity of the U.S. academy with global militarism, carceral regimes, and settler colonial circuits of power, in which Israel is a key player.

Indeed, the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Trump’s victory spurred more vigorous and vocal progressive mobilization on campuses and in communities, with solidarity campaigns binding together movements against police violence and militarization, and for racial justice, immigrant rights and sanctuary, gender and sexual rights, indigenous sovereignty, environmental justice, and freedom in Palestine. The historic Women’s March in January 2017, which mobilized masses of people to come out in the streets against Trump after his inauguration, was called for by prominent feminist activists such as Angela Davis and Palestinian American Linda Sarsour, who have advocated for BDS as part of a feminist politics. The International Women’s Strike on March 8, 2017, explicitly included a call for “the decolonization of Palestine” in its platform, and for the dismantling of “all walls, from prison walls to border walls, from Mexico to Palestine.” These campaigns build on the solidarities that were created in previous years as the BDS movement made linkages with Black Lives Matter, the antiwar and prison abolition movement, labor unions, faith-based activists, and feminist and queer groups.

As “White supremacy” became a term permissible in discussions on major cable news networks about Trump and his alt-right followers, there were also growing conversations about Zionism, the ways it can become imbricated with anti-Semitism on the right, and the need to challenge racial supremacy and White privilege. Palestine has become central to all of these major contemporary debates and resistance movements. Omar Barghouti writes about the struggle for liberation, equality, and dignity waged through BDS:

The global BDS movement for Palestinian rights presents a progressive, antiracist, sophisticated, sustainable, moral, and effective form of nonviolent civil resistance. It has become one of the key political catalysts and moral anchors for a strengthened, reinvigorated international social movement capable of ending the law of the jungle and upholding in its stead the rule of law, reaffirming the rights of all humans to freedom, equality, and dignified living.

Our South Africa moment has finally arrived!

There really is no turning back.


Sunaina Maira is Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis.

Boycott! is available now as an e-book, and forthcoming in print.


ASA, Interdisciplinary Associations, and American Studies Now

By Roderick A. Ferguson, author of We Demand: The University and Student Protests

UC Press is proud to be part of the Association of American University Press’s sixth annual University Press Week, whose overreaching theme this year is #LookItUp: Knowledge Matters. Today’s theme is “Producing the Books That Matter,” exemplified by the new series American Studies Now. We encourage you to also visit our fellow university presses blogging on this theme today: University Press of Kansas, Georgetown University Press, UBC Press, University of Michigan Press, Fordham University Press, Yale University Press, and MIT Press.

This guest post is part of the ASA blog series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Studies Association in Chicago, IL Nov. 9-12—and as part of blog series of contributions by authors in the new series American Studies Now.


The question at this historical moment is can we really engage in difficult work. By “difficult,” I mean the ethically and intellectually hard task of unpacking and confronting social regulations and exclusions in their various locations—in nation-states, in academic fields, and in communities. Historically, interdisciplinary fields have demonstrated a greater capacity for this difficult labor as they have been the ones to engender and demand the creation of languages for race, sexuality, gender, class, disability and so on, developing those languages so that various publics might engage social, political, and economic challenges.

“We Demand” by ASA president-elect Roderick A. Ferguson is the first volume in the American Studies Now series.

For me, this is where interdisciplinary organizations like the American Studies Association and the American Studies Now book series join forces. In addition to producing the languages necessary to confront the social forces that have threatened the survival of various minoritized communities, it has been associations like the ASA that have mustered the courage to speak uncomfortable truths about the modes of violence arising from the state as well as from the regimes of race, gender, sexuality and class. Collectively, the interdisciplines—much more so than the disciplines—have assumed the crucial task of confronting domination. In a nation and a world that increasingly prohibits honest and critical encounters, interdisciplinary associations like the ASA are needed now more than ever, needed to produce intellectuals at all levels who will refuse to accept—as Edward Said put it—“the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwilling, but actively willing to say so in public.”

The stakes of this commitment to critical articulations were made clear by the old woman in Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel address, the one who offers a lesson about the vital importance of language, the one who warned that yielding to the confirmations of the powerful could only lead to what she called “tongue-suicide.” This murder of critical thinking, she said, is “common among the infantile heads of state and power merchants whose evacuated language leaves them with no access to what is left of their human instincts, for they speak only to those who obey, or in order to force obedience.” In this moment, we need a network of cultures whose primary purpose is to studiously reactivate the deep and public obligations of critical intellection.

American Studies Now is poised to be an access point within this network of cultures. If the series is designed—as the editors argue—to “refuse the distinction between politics and culture,” then one of the of the ways in which it embodies that is by creating books written for undergraduate audiences, books designed to give undergraduates the tools to raise the level of social discussion. As such, American Studies Now participates in a larger interdisciplinary culture whose job is the creation of intellectual networks that can actively develop critical and imaginative publics within and outside our scholarly associations.


Roderick A. Ferguson is Professor of American Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and African American Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He was Associate Editor of American Quarterly from 2007 to 2010 and is president-elect of the American Studies Association.


Debuting at ASA 2017: American Studies Now, a New Series

Taking the 2017 American Studies Association conference by storm the new series edited by past presidents of the ASA American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present offers short, timely books on the issues that matter today.

“We need new ways to publish and distribute the work of American Studies scholars. The monograph and the journal article have a crucial role in our field, but they aren’t serving us well in the undergraduate classroom. And they aren’t putting our work into circulation in the pressing, scary political present. This new series is one new way to address those needs — short, accessible books on Black Lives Matter, climate change, neoliberalism, BDS, the continuing urban crisis, indigenous politics, queer and trans issues, the crises in higher education and more. They are designed to provide timely, provocative analysis for teaching, for activism, and for engagement now.”—Lisa Duggan, past president of the American Studies Association & co-editor of American Studies Now

Much of the most exciting contemporary work in American Studies refuses the distinction between politics and culture—focusing on historical cultures of power and protest on the one hand, or the political importance of cultural practices on the other. With a short production schedule, the titles in American Studies Now are able to cover these political and cultural intersections while such teachable moments are at the center of public conversation.

“Given the constant rush and hum of information in our social media saturated worlds, it’s easy to get stuck in the here and now in ways that make it difficult to take a critical perspective on where we are and how we got there. So American Studies Now reflects not only the urgency of the questions raised by each volume in the series but also suggests what we mean by critical histories of the present — scholarship that helps readers think about contemporary problems in terms of their larger historical, social, and cultural significance.”—Curtis Marez, past president of the American Studies Association & co-editor of American Studies Now

Learn more about this exciting, new series in this Q&A with series editors Lisa Duggan and Curtis Marez, and visit UC Press at booth 405 to browse the books. Heading to the conference? Be sure to check out the following session:

  • American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present
    Fri, November 10, 4:00 to 5:45pm
    With UC Press Executive Editor Niels Hooper, series editors Lisa Duggan and Curtis Marez, and series authors Scott Kurashige, Sunaina Maira, Barbara Ransby, Shelley Streeby, and Macarena Gomez-Barris
    View session details here

For more author sessions at ASA, and to see what else we’ll have on view, head here.


Heading to ASA? Save 40% on These American Studies Titles

From searing critiques of power and wealth, to in-depth investigations of race, gender, and class to cultural histories of activism and social justice, these new releases will inspire the way you think about America today. Visit UC Press at the American Studies Association conference (booth 405) to save 40% on these titles and more. To take early advantage of our conference discount—and see just a sample of what will be on view—visit our ASA landing page.

We’re especially excited to debut the new series American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present, edited by past presidents of the ASA Lisa Duggan and Curtis Marez. Offering broad context provided by deeply knowledgeable American Studies scholars and activists, these short, timely books address the political and cultural issues that matter now. Learn more about American Studies Now from the series editors. 

Take Note of These ASA Sessions:

  • American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present
    With UC Press Executive Editor Niels Hooper, series editors Lisa Duggan and Curtis Marez, and series authors Scott Kurashige, Sunaina Maira, Barbara Ransby, Shelley Streeby, and Macarena Gomez-Barris
    View session here
  • Rethinking History and Methods in the American Studies Classroom 
    Join Philip Deloria and Alexander Olson, authors of of American Studies: A User’s Guide, as they discuss how renewed attention to method might change the way American Studies is taught in the classroom and beyond
    View session here
  • Roderick Ferguson, author of We Demand: The University and Student Protests
    View all sessions here
  • Jack Halberstam, author of Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability 
    View all sessions here
  • Barbara Ransby, author of the forthcoming Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century
    View all sessions here
  • Josh Kun, editor of The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles
    View session here
  • Sharon Luk, author of The Life of Paper: Letters and a Poetics of Living Beyond Captivity
    View session here
  • Simeon Man, author of the forthcoming Soldiering through Empire: Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific
    View session here

Browse more new & notable American Studies Titles.


The Detroit Uprising & Police Brutality: Kathryn Bigelow’s Film Is Just One of Many Stories

By Scott Kurashige, author of The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit

This guest post is part of a blog series of contributions by authors in American Studies Now, an e-book first series of short, timely books on significant political and cultural events.


Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Detroit rebellion, famed director Kathryn Bigelow (whose film, The Hurt Locker, swept the Oscars) has a new release simply titled Detroit. The title is somewhat misleading, as the focus of the movie is on a specific instance during the 1967 uprising in which three African American teenagers were killed by the police, while others were brutally interrogated and tortured overnight in the Algiers Motel.

Bigelow is a master of her craft, and the film has garnered widespread critical acclaim for bringing this horrific incident to greater public attention at a time when police killings continue seemingly unabated and the president is goading the cops to rough up suspects. The acting, especially by Algee Smith and dozens who have bit parts or are extras, in many cases is nothing short of phenomenal.

At the same time, the film has served as a lightning rod for criticism. One can expect the film to be dismissed by the “Blue Lives Matter” chorus as bashing the police. However, the film has also been scorned by #OscarsSoWhite critics demanding more African American talent behind the camera, as well as those who abhor police brutality yet are exhausted by the media’s constant replaying of actual and dramatized scenes of black suffering and trauma.

I fully appreciate the polarized response to the film, which should not come as any surprise. It offers one perspective on one of the many stories about Detroit we should know. One thing worth highlighting, however, is that the film is part of a cultural shift toward portraying the events of 1967 as a “rebellion” rather than a “riot.” Indeed, it generally gets right that the police were a primary source of the lawlessness that threatened innocent civilians.

Drawing from Sidney Fine’s Violence in the Model City and the Kerner Commission report, this is a point I emphasized in the following excerpt from chapter one of my book:

Regardless of opinion, when we look closely at the deadly violence that took place during the rebellion, one pattern stands out: the killing of African Americans by state actors. Of the 43 who died, 33 were black and 30 were killed by law enforcement, as the streets of Detroit were covered by 17,000 Detroit cops, state police, National Guardsmen, and finally U.S. Army troops. Authorities had hoped initial outbreaks of violence would play themselves out. When they instead expanded into full-fledged rebellion, the police became the aggressors in one confrontation after another. “This is more than a riot,” said one police officer, reflecting the view of many peers. “This is war.”

When Governor George Romney called in the National Guard, they were poorly prepared and rushed into action. Many had signed up to avoid being sent to Vietnam, yet they also had little prior experience in or knowledge of Detroit when they were deployed to the city. “I’m gonna shoot anything that moves and that is black,” one declared. In one of the most horrific episodes, a four-year-old African American girl named Tonia Blanding was struck 27 times after the National Guard mistook the lighting of a cigarette for sniper fire and saturated her apartment building with .50 caliber machine gun fire. When the final count of the dead was tallied, most had been killed by the police and guard. The army, under direct orders, exercised comparative restraint and carried unloaded weapons.

From the vantage point of thousands of black Detroiters, the civil disorder was experienced largely as a violent police riot, recreating what had occurred in 1943. Whatever resentment the black street force may have felt toward “whitey,” the rage was almost uniformly directed at property rather than human life. Nonetheless, the police systematically rounded up, illegally searched, beat, and arrested scores of black Detroiters, including members of the press and citizens doing nothing more than observing events. Hundreds of suspects were detained in poor and unsanitary conditions; most notoriously, up to a thousand were forced to sleep, urinate, and defecate on a cement floor of the police department’s underground parking garage. Many were subsequently railroaded by an overstressed legal system with little regard for due process. Misogyny underlay abuse, as well. One woman was falsely arrested and then groped, molested, and forced to strip for a photograph with an officer fondling her half-naked body.


Scott Kurashige is Professor of American and Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington Bothell and coauthor with Grace Lee Boggs of The Next American Revolution.

Learn more about his latest book, The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroitavailable now.


Trump’s Transgender Crisis

By Jack Halberstam, author of Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability

This guest post is part of a blog series of contributions by authors in American Studies Now, a series of short, timely books on significant political and cultural events.


At a time when the visibility and acceptance of transgender people has never been higher, when high school students openly discuss issues of gender variance and businesses boycott states without transgender bathroom policies, President Trump tweeted his intention to ban transgender people from the military. Perhaps, President Trump decided that he needed to make this bold move to win back conservative backers. No doubt even devout Trump supporters in the USA might be eyeing Trump’s health care policies with bewilderment right now and wondering why they are in bed with a one-percenter with strong ties to Russia and little interest in US businesses. For those supporters, Trump offered an olive branch yesterday—by proposing to ban transgender people from the military, he happily sacrificed a gender ambiguous lamb to the mercurial gods of conservative family values.

Trump’s pro-LGBT stance was only the latest campaign posture to find its way to the trash heap of broken promises. While fending off charges of collusion with Russia, treason, rigged elections, and incompetence, Trump has found an issue to rally his right wing fringe supporters while confusing and enraging his many detractors. In the wake of his announcement, many transgender people fired back on twitter to remind Trump and his cronies that they do not want to serve in the military anyway. Others, service members who have been honored in combat, emphasized their intention to stay right where they are, ban or no ban. America’s most famous transgender soldier, Chelsea Manning, accused Trump of cowardice and of creating a distraction with his announcement, but she also suggested that the US military had an inflated and bloated budget anyway, which should be redirected to health care. Hear, hear!

Trump’s tweeted policy change exemplifies how confused conservatives are about transgender issues. While running for office, Trump clearly stated his intentions to protect LGBT communities and to defend the rights of transgender people to use whatever bathroom they deem appropriate and, one assumes, to serve in the military. So, why this ban, why now? Is it related to the health care bill that President Trump has been trying unsuccessfully to put in place—a bill that will dispossess hundreds of thousands of people of their current health care policies? Is it part of an economic retrenchment, an attempt to cut away all unnecessary spending? Trump himself gave an economic rationale for his decision saying that the military spends millions on transgender surgeries. This is nonsense, as many journalists and researchers have pointed out—sex reassignment surgeries are a miniscule part of any military budget and in fact, as the BBC reports: “the US military spends almost $42m a year on the erectile dysfunction medication Viagra—several times the total estimated cost of transgender medical support.” By comparison, the Rand corporation estimates that expenses related to transgender soldiers fall between $5-8 million annually.

There are a few lessons to be learned from Trump’s quick turn away from his clearly stated promises to support transgender people—first, transgender issues have tended to be a safe bet for securing conservative votes. Trump may have overestimated the extent to which this is still true. Second, transgender issues continue to hold a fascination and allure that distracts people from the actual issues under discussion. Finally, transgender people are more integrated into society than ever before in history and the tide towards acceptance is unlikely to be turned back by big, dumb moves like this one. Rather than simply fight for the right for transgender people to serve in the military however, we should seize upon this issue, as Chelsea Manning did, to ask why the military has such a bloated budget in the first place and how these funds can be redirected? We should also push back in similar ways and with equal force on Trump’s attempts to: dispossess people of access to basic health care, amp up security forces and deportations, and to downsize education.

This latest measure neither reflects the current climate on transgender people in or out of the military and has no obvious purpose other than to distract from his total lack of a foreign policy, his disdain for the health of the environment, and his total inability to govern. Transgender people, many of whom have served their country selflessly, which is more than Trump and most of his cabinet can claim, will survive this latest indignity and may well see this ban overturned sooner rather than later once Trump realizes he has lost the crowd’s attention and support and has instead inspired their wrath, their pity and finally, their indifference.


Jack Halberstam is Professor of English and Gender Studies at Columbia University.

Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability explores recent shifts in the meaning of the gendered body and representation, and the possibilities of a nongendered, gender-optional, or gender-queer future.


July 23, 1967 Riot or Rebellion? How Today’s Political Crisis Began in Detroit

Detroit has stood at the center of a growing crisis in the United States tied to racial conflict, the collapse of the middle class, and political polarization. No city, argues historian Scott Kurashige, has come to embody the decline of middle-class economic security, the entrenchment of structural unemployment, and the burden of long-term debt more than Detroit. Kurashige — who is also an activist and author of The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit — worked closely with the legendary Grace Lee Boggs, a noted figure in Detroit’s Black Power movement, as well as many community organizations in Detroit. “When you think about Detroit’s 50-year crisis”, he says, “it really relates to the unresolved contradictions of 1967.”

On July 23, 1967, thousands took to the streets of Detroit to vent their long-standing frustrations with racism, police brutality, and vanishing job prospects. Mainstream observers called it a “riot,” contending that it brought about the ruin of a once-great city and stressed for repressive policing to restore law and order. As Kurashige points out in The Fifty-Year Rebellion, many others instead called it a “rebellion,” and advocated for social programs and investments to remedy racism and poverty:

They viewed it as an expression of black unity and a political declaration for their “fair share” of resources and power in the great city and nation… Regardless of opinion, when we look closely at the deadly violence that took place during the rebellion, one pattern stands out: the killing of African Americans by state actors.

Of the 43 who died, 33 were black and 30 were killed by law enforcement, as the streets of Detroit were covered by 17,000 Detroit cops, state police, National Guardsmen, and finally U.S. Army troops. Authorities had hoped initial outbreaks of violence would play themselves out. When they instead expanded into full-fledged rebellion, the police became the aggressors in one confrontation after another. “This is more than a riot,” said one police officer, reflecting the view of many peers. “This is war.”

In the following segment of The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann, Kurashige further clarifies the difference between the two terms, and why it’s an important distinction:

 

Challenging the conventional notion that “rioters” ruined a once-thriving city, The Fifty-Year Rebellion provides striking insights into the polarization of American society over the past half-century and how the struggle in Detroit will determine what type of political and economic system will emerge from the nation’s current crisis.

With a roster of key figures and their roles — from community activists such as James and Grace Lee Boggs to wealthy and private investors like Betsy DeVos and Dan Gilbert — the book shows that in the face of devastation and dispossession, visionary Detroit activists have organized a new model of a postindustrial city through the creation of urban farms, freedom schools, solidarity economics, and self-governing communities.


The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit is part of American Studies Now, an e-book first series of short, timely books on significant political and cultural events.


Grace Lee Boggs & Immanuel Wallerstein: A Dialogue Between Two Visionaries

By Scott Kurashige, author of The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit

This guest post is part of a blog series of contributions by authors in American Studies Now, an e-book first series of short, timely books on significant political and cultural events. Here, Scott Kurashige reflects on the seventh anniversary of a key event that shaped the thinking behind his new book, The Fifty-Year Rebellion.


One of the greatest honors in my life was the opportunity to moderate a historic conversation between the renowned historical sociologist, Immanuel Wallerstein, and the late philosopher-activist, Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015). It took place in Detroit on June 24, 2010, before a boisterous crowd of seven hundred people during the United States Social Forum.

The recorded conversation gives a sense of the visionary quality of these radical and profound thinkers. Long before Brexit, Trump, Corbyn, and Sanders made headlines, Wallerstein addressed the rise of “right-wing populism” and “electoral fluctuations.” Quoting Hegel, Boggs implored the audience to think dialectically about the volatile times we live in. Because progress does not occur in a “straight line,” we must accept the challenge “to use the negative as a way to advance the positive.” Their phenomenal exchanges are a wonderful place to start as we try to make sense of the economic, political, and epistemological crises we face in 2017.

Surveying the grand sweep of history, Wallerstein reminded us that “historical systems do not go on forever.” While it undoubtedly caused immense suffering and exploitation, the capitalist system had functioned well on its own terms for decades but “has moved far away from equilibrium and gotten into what we call a structural crisis.” When a system is stable it takes a tremendous amount of force to move it slightly in one direction or the other. However, once a system is out of equilibrium, the “free will factor” becomes paramount. Thus, we are currently locked in a struggle to determine whether capitalism will be replaced over the next three to four decades by a relatively more egalitarian and democratic system or a more oppressive system that is even worse than what we have known.

“It’s a fantastic period,” Boggs emphasized, because we are at “that time on the clock of the universe where we face our evolution to a higher humanity or the devastation and the extinction of all life on earth.” Detroit, she asserted, is the ideal place to witness the devastation of racism and deindustrialization alongside the rise of grassroots movements that are making the city “the national and international symbol of a new kind of society.”

Continue reading “Grace Lee Boggs & Immanuel Wallerstein: A Dialogue Between Two Visionaries”


The Furor Over Conservative Speakers: A Long Choreographed Enterprise

By Roderick A. Ferguson, author of We Demand: The University and Student Protests

This guest post is part of a blog series of contributions by authors in American Studies Now, an e-book first series of short, timely books on significant political and cultural events.


On April 24, 2017 the Berkeley College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation filed a lawsuit against UC Berkeley for cancelling visits by conservative authors Ann Coulter and David Horowitz over security concerns, stating: “Though UC Berkeley promises its students an environment that promotes free debate and the free exchange of ideas, it had breached this promise through the repressive actions of University administrators and campus police.” The suit goes on to state that the administration restricts conservative speakers differently than liberal ones.

It’s important to note that the furor over conservative speakers is a well-and-long choreographed enterprise. Indeed, the movements of that choreography were planned well over forty years ago in former Chief Justice Lewis Powell’s secret but generative document popularly known as “The Powell Memorandum.” In 1971 Powell sent the memorandum to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a private organization of business leaders, warning them about the mobilization against capitalism taking place in U.S. society, generally, and on college campuses specifically.

Through the memorandum, Powell attempted to give business leaders a primer on “best practices” for garnering ideological support for corporations and the executives that run them. The category “balance” was central to that effort. Balance would become a powerful ideological tool in that offensive. In the memo, Powell used the category to construct American colleges and universities as inhospitable to and therefore in need of conservative viewpoints. As he stated, “The difficulty is that balance is conspicuous by its absence on many campuses, with relatively few members being of conservative or moderate persuasion and even the relatively few often being less articulate and aggressive than their crusading colleagues.” As an ideological weapon, “balance” was a neutral sounding category that helped to construct business elites as vulnerable minorities against powerful liberal and leftist bullies. In a moment of minority insurgency, “balance” would encourage people to see the business community as a minority among minorities but one that needed to be liberated from its peers.

Part of the ideological offensive represented by “balance” involved using the category to reorganize knowledge within the university so that it would favor conservative social projects. For instance, in a discussion of why a “continuous program” for evaluating social scientific textbooks is necessary, Powell stated, “The objectives of such evaluations should be oriented toward restoring the balance essential to academic freedom. This would include assurance of fair and factual treatment of our system of government and our enterprise system, its accomplishments, its basic relationship to individual rights and freedoms, and comparisons with the systems of socialism, fascism, and communism. Most of the existing textbooks have some sort of comparisons, but many are biased, superficial, and unfair.” The memo is important because it reveals how the issue of balance was never simply about the rights of a singular group of speakers or the free circulation of a particular set of viewpoints. “Balance” was designed from the very beginning to leverage institutional and social conditions so that conservative formations might enjoy dominance while maligning and subjugating their critics.


Roderick A. Ferguson is Professor of American Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and African American Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He is also the co-director of the Racialized Body research cluster at UIC. From 2007 to 2010, he was Associate Editor of the American Studies Association’s flagship journal American Quarterly. Beginning this July, he will serve as president-elect of the American Studies Association for a year before becoming president of the organization in July 2018.

His book We Demand: The University and Student Protests is available as an e-book now, before the print format publishes this August.

 


Introducing American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present

Much of the most exciting contemporary work in American Studies refuses the distinction between politics and culture — focusing on historical cultures of power and protest on the one hand, or the political importance of cultural practices, on the other. We are excited to announce American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present, a series publishing titles that cover these political and cultural intersections, exploring the ways the events of our past continue to shape our present.

American Studies Now publishes short, timely books on significant political and cultural events while such teachable moments are at the center of public conversation.

We spoke with editors Lisa Duggan and Curtis Marez to discuss the goals of American Studies Now and how these books can be usedin the classroom and beyond.


What inspired you to develop the American Studies Now series?

Lisa Duggan: We need new ways to publish and distribute the work of American Studies scholars. The monograph and the journal article have a crucial role in our field, but they aren’t serving us well in the undergraduate classroom. And they aren’t putting our work into circulation in the pressing, scary political present. This new series is one new way to address those needs — short, accessible books on Black Lives Matter, climate change, neoliberalism, BDS, the continuing urban crisis, indigenous politics, queer and trans issues, the crises in higher education and more. They are designed to provide timely, provocative analysis for teaching, for activism, and for engagement now.

The series is described as “critical histories of the present” — could you elaborate on what this means?

Curtis Marez: Given the constant rush and hum of information in our social media saturated worlds, it’s easy to get stuck in the here and now in ways that make it difficult to take a critical perspective on where we are and how we got there. So American Studies Now reflects not only the urgency of the questions raised by each volume in the series but also suggests what we mean by critical histories of the present — scholarship that helps readers think about contemporary problems in terms of their larger historical, social, and cultural significance.

Why the need to publish on a short schedule?

LD: We want to counter the long, slow publication process and relatively narrow circulation of most academic publishing with an option designed for speed and impact, on the timeclock of the political present. Offering broad context provided by deeply knowledgeable American Studies scholars, these books can contribute to classroom and public discussions on issues that matter now.

How will these books contribute to the field of American Studies?

CM: Each book brings American Studies concepts and methods to the analysis of vital contemporary social movements. Authors build on and rethink the field’s historical social movement focus by foregrounding a host of contemporary grassroots movements such as Black Lives Matter, student movements, and movements for sexual justice. At the same time, American Studies Now presents critical accounts of dominant social movements such asthe movement to privatize higher education and to silence dissent; the law and order movement supporting the expansion of police power; climate justice; and the movement for free market fundamentalism that informs contemporary state policies.

Continue reading “Introducing American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present”